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‘Home is no longer safe’, Syrian refugee women in Jordan fear domestic violence more than COVID-19

As Jordan enters its sixth week of lockdown, victims of domestic violence, especially refugees, continue to suffer at the hands of their abusers with no end in sight. 

3 May 2020

AMMAN — As Jordan enters its sixth week of coronavirus-induced lockdown, victims of domestic violence, especially refugees, continue to suffer at the hands of their abusers with no end in sight. 

In Zarqa, northeast of the capital Amman, Rawan—a 23-year-old Syrian refugee—takes care of her husband and three children. Her husband is a carpenter who has been unemployed since the quarantine began and all businesses were shut down on March 21. 

Before the lockdown, Rawan’s husband would constantly curse and insult her. Now, he has started to hit her while chasing after women online. Most recently, he burned her for refusing to be intimate with him.

Her home “is no longer a safe place,” Rawan told Syria Direct. “The dangers of being trapped in a household with an abusive man outweigh the risk of catching the novel coronavirus,” she added.

Although there are no official numbers available at this time, Jordan has seen a notable increase in the number of domestic violence cases reported, Salma al-Nims, the secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW), told Syria Direct

The JNCW serves as a hotline which refers women to civil society organizations that can help them while still operating remotely. While the Public Security Directorate-affiliated Family Protection Department (FPD) is operating and accepting cases, civil society organizations have not been authorized to work during this time.

“We immediately warned the government that there will be an increase in violence that may not be documented because women have less access to the usual networks that deal with violence to report it,” al-Nims said. “One of the things we told them is that there is a need for a clear message from the government that there is zero-tolerance for violence against women even in the curfew.”

Last month, Jordan witnessed two disturbing incidents when a woman was shot and killed by an unidentified person in the southern Ma’an province, while another woman was shot and injured by her husband after a dispute in Amman. 

Organizations such as Sisterhood Is Global Institute/Jordan (SIGI) presented several proposals to confront the increasing violence and also called on the government to send messages through official channels to stress that domestic violence will not be tolerated, but they have not received any response to their proposals. 

“The government has focused on protecting the country from the pandemic but has not addressed the social repercussions that these measures created,” Kristina Kaghdo, a women’s rights activist and gender-based-violence expert who provides psychosocial support to refugee women in a community center in Amman, told Syria Direct. 

Furthermore, most women, according to al-Nims, don’t want to file a complaint against their abusers and prefer the flexible alternative solutions civil society organizations offer. 

“The refugee population would have one more obstacle. They want to be invisible as much as possible. Maybe they don’t have the papers that allow them to live in cities. They would not report [cases of abuse] and seek help because it would expose them to an authority they are afraid of,” Kaghdo added. 

To that end, UNHCR is responding to victims remotely due to restrictions on movement. “UNHCR protection team is available 24 hours a day on a variety of hotlines and continues to deliver counseling. In addition, we are providing urgent cash assistance to victims of violence in cases where they may need to leave the places where they are living and seek safe shelter elsewhere,” Lilly Carlisle, UNHCR spokesperson, told Syria Direct

But Rawan believes that these measures are simply not enough to support her or other victims. “UNHCR should have allocated shelters to provide us with protection. How will I benefit from speaking to them over the phone while I live with my abuser in the same house? Even if they give me money without protection.”

Syria Direct has not been able to obtain the number of registered cases of domestic abuse victims among refugee women since the beginning of the COVID-19 response. But according to Kaghdo, out of 9,000 reported cases of domestic violence in 2019, only about 168 were reported by Syrian women. 

The life of a battered woman 

Walking away from an abuser can be a dangerous feat for domestic violence victims, and it may cause an abusive partner to retaliate in very destructive ways. Fear, shame, and love often keep victims mentally shackled to their abusers. However, undocumented or ambiguous immigration statuses coupled with weak support networks and lack of safe spaces make it even more impossible to break free. 

Every time Rawan considers leaving, her family’s words reverberate in the back of her mind: “Do not ruin your home. If not for you, think of your children.” 

Rawan’s husband has grown more aggressive and although she is often afraid, she says she has nowhere to turn to. Especially now.

“I complained to my family about him, but their words were, as usual, that I stay quiet and satisfied with the status quo,” Rawan told Syria Direct. “They asked me to bear it because this is a stressful period for everyone. Tomorrow the ban will be lifted, my husband will return to work, and the problems will go away (they said).”

Rawan’s family is concerned she will harm her family by losing custody over her children if she leaves. Women who do decide to speak up mostly turn to their families and friends rather than the police and FPD because of a lack of effective judicial response to their cases, said Rahaf Mohyiddin, a family and psychological specialist. Many are unaware of their rights and reported feeling an internal sense of alienation from their family and society, she added. 

A 29-year-old Syrian mother of five children, Maysa, spoke to Syria Direct under a pseudonym about her entrapment in an abusive marriage. She was wed to a considerably older investor and company owner at 22 years old and celebrated for her good fortune, which was short-lived. 

She was beaten for the first time on her wedding night. According to the husband, she recalled, it was a family tradition for the man to beat his wife on their first night together to establish dominance in the relationship. As the beatings continued, she summoned the courage to confide in her family and ask for help. 

“They asked me to remain silent and content. They said I would not get a better groom than this man. My life continued this way for years. I gave birth to my five children through physical and verbal abuse that I was subject to even when we were intimate. I would cry and complain to my mother and she would repeat the same thing,” Maysa said.

Maysa’s family, concerned with the scandal it would cause if their daughter was to separate from her husband, emphatically refused to take her into their home. Further, her husband is connected to influential people and would pay any price to “take revenge” if she leaves, she said.

“Violence has become part of my life like the air I breathe and the food I eat. On the day he does not hit me, I feel accomplished,” she said. “My husband does not need justifications to abuse me. With or without the coronavirus pandemic, I will be beaten.”


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